Hammers progress on penalties!

UEFA Europa League second qualifying round, second leg 

Birkirkara 1-0 AET West Ham United, (1-1 on aggregate), 3-5 on penalties       

West Ham United survived an almighty scare against Birkirkara on Thursday evening, as the Hammers prevailed 5-3 on penalties to book their place in the third qualifying round of the Europa League. 

The Hammers fell behind in the 14th minute to a Fabrizio Miccoli goal from close range, before James Tomkins saw red in the half’s closing stages for an altercation with Nikola Vukanac. 

Matias Mazzetti was dismissed in the second half of extra time for a second caution, but the hosts would cling onto their slender advantage to take the game to spot-kicks. 

Ironically, it was Vukanac who missed the decisive spot-kick, skying his penalty woefully over the bar with the Hammers 3-2 to the good, ultimately leaving Diego Poyet to roll home the Hammers’ fifth and secure Slaven Bilic’s men’s progress.  

Any hopes that the return leg might prove a more straightforward affair than the first were well and truly banished within the first quarter of an hour here. 

The Maltese started strongly and got stronger. Within three minutes Joey O’Brien threw himself to the ground to block a shot on the edge of the box. At the other end, Matt Jarvis had the Hammers’ first effort of note, taking aim from the edge of the box. Haber got down low to his right to save.  

But unlike at the Boleyn Ground, West Ham were neither dominating possession nor territory and when the hosts hit the front after 14 minutes, it was hardly against the run of play. 

Liliu broke free down the right and though James Collins sought to cover the ground, Italian Fabrizio Miccoli slid in at the near post to tuck home. It looked suspiciously like an own goal, with O’Brien in close attendance, but suffice to say the home fans were not bothered one jot.  

West Ham at least began to see a little more possession as they grew into proceedings. But when Aaron Cresswell got to the by-line his cut-back was too deep for Cheikhou Kouyate, while the Senegal midfielder’s 20-yard strike was easily held.    
Calamity struck on the stroke of half-time, with West Ham again being reduced to ten men on their European travels. And just like in Andorra, it was an off-the-ball incident. 

As West Ham waited to deliver a free-kick from the right, Tomkins tangled with Nikola Vukanac in the middle. The latter fell to earth and after an absolute age, referee Enea Jorgji gave West Ham’s No5 his marching orders.    

There were no changes at the interval and, with the extra man, Birkirkara were doing most of the pressing. Adrian, under considerable pressure, did well to punch a corner clear, before Miccoli dragged an effort a yard or two wide of the near post from 20 yards. 

For the Hammers, Jarvis craned his neck to meet Amalfitano’s deep, looping cross, but could only nod over the top. It was more or less the Frenchman’s last involvement, as he was replaced by Modibo Maiga, while Diego Poyet came on for skipper Kevin Nolan. 

Moments later Jarvis had half-hearted claims for a spot-kick waved away. The No7 darted into the box only to go down under the challenge of Vukanac. Nothing doing, said Jorgji, as the ball looped onto the roof of the net via a Birkirkara boot. 

Ironically, he had a much better shout shortly afterwards. Crossing from the right, Jarvis was crudely upended by a decidedly late challenge, but neither the linesman nor the referee was interested. Slaven Bilic on the touchline made his frustrations known.     

As the clock ticked down, Maiga was felled 25 yards from goal, but Cresswell’s free-kick cannoned straight into the wall and out of harm’s way. Four minutes of injury time came and went without incident and into extra time it went. 

Jarvis went close again after the restart. The winger let fly from the right-hand side of the box and a wicked deflection took it narrowly past the far post. Substitute Vito Plut then raced away and, with Cresswell back pedalling, poked tamely into Adrian’s arms. 

It was ten aside inside three second-half minutes of extra time. Vukanac tripped Mauro Zarate and Mazzetti managed to talk his way into the book to earn his second caution of the evening. 

There was then a heart-stopping moment for Adrian when he raced off his line, but got enough on the ball to convince the referee that his challenge was a legal one. 

West Ham, meanwhile, briefly thought they had a winner through Maiga. The No20 tucked home Zarate’s pass but celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s flag.   

Mark Noble, Paul Fenech, Zarate, Vito Plut and Cresswell were each spotless from 12 yards, before Vukanac blasted miles over. O’Brien and Edmond Agius then converted their respective spot-kicks, before Poyet stepped up, calm as you like, to send the Hammers through to face Romanian side Astra.  

Birkirkara: Haber (GK), Z.Muscat, Marcelina (Zammit 96), Vukanac, Mazzetti, Fenech (c), Camenzuli, Zerafa, R. Muscat (Agius 70), Liliu, Miccoli (Plut 77)  

Akpan (GK), Sciberras, D.Zerafa, Murga

Booked: Miccoli, Vukanac, Mazzetti  

Sent off: Mazzetti 

Goal:Miccoli 14 

West Ham United: Adrian (GK), O'Brien, Tomkins, Collins, Cresswell, Kouyate, Noble, Nolan (Poyet 59), Jarvis (Samuelsen 120), Amalfitano (Maiga 59), Zarate 

Subs: Randolph (GK), Hendrie, Pike 

Booked: Noble, Collins  

Sent off: Tomkins 

Referee: Enea Jorgji